Outside magazine, May 1997
The robot stands erect, motionless, its black cyclops eye making it look slightly addled. Finally, a hit to the sternum sends it crashing backward to the ground — slowly, stiffly, like a felled oak. As it sprawls on the asphalt, one especially determined assailant continues to land brutal chops to the shins, leaning in until his ax handle splinters.
The robot lies still.
Victorious, the attackers help their victim to its feet and gently pry off the top half of the robot's shell, revealing a small, wiry man. He runs his hand through his short-cropped hair. He laughs, a bit maniacally. His Imperial Storm Trooper legs dance an arthritic little jig. Another successful mauling in the name of science.
In pursuit of his off-kilter dream — creating a suit of armor that can withstand the attack of a grizzly bear — Troy Hurtubise has endured much: Slugs in the chest from a 12-gauge shotgun at a range of 20 feet. Falling, on purpose, off the edge of the 150-foot-high Niagara Escarpment. Assaults from burly friends and relatives all too willing to cuff him repeatedly with road picks, knives, bows and arrows, two-by-fours. Eighteen times he has stood in the path of a three-ton pickup doing 30 miles per hour, and 18 times the truck has knocked him from here to next week. On several occasions, he has stood at attention while a 350-pound log, winched 30 feet up in a tree, swung down broadside to topple him like a human bowling pin.
On the surface, it's hard to see just what necessity mothered Hurtubise's invention. He is a 33-year-old unemployed scrap-metal dealer living with his wife and four-year-old son in North Bay, Ontario, 2,000 comfortable miles from the nearest grizzly habitat. Yet the self-described "close-quarter bear researcher" has spent a decade and $110,000 of his own money assembling and modifying four versions of his suit. "Grizzlies have a lot to offer science," he says, "but you can't get in close to the bear. You die."
Even though neither Hurtubise nor anyone else has yet worn his suit in an actual encounter with a grizzly, the test-beatings have convinced him that the Ursus Mark VI can provide risk-free proximity to even the grumpiest bear. "This suit, unlike any ever built," he says, jabbing at the air as he speaks, "has not only an exoskeleton, it has an endoskeleton, too. No outside force is touching my body. That's why you can park a truck on it — nothing's going to happen to me."
According to Hurtubise, two formative events inspired his quest to build a better bear suit. The second happened in 1987, when he saw the futuristic body armor in the movie Robocop. The first unfolded in a lonely mountain meadow in August 1984, near a place called Humidity Creek in British Columbia. Hurtubise, then 20, was alone on a gold-panning trip. Returning to his camp one afternoon, he looked up and saw an enormous bear. The tuft of white fur on its chin prompted Hurtubise to refer to him — and by extension all grizzlies — as "the Old Man."
The bear, so the story goes, lumbered away.
Hurtubise is certainly the picture of vigilance: sprightly and cocky, low-built and tensed, a black belt in two martial arts. He wears a fringed buckskin jacket and cowboy boots with buckles as prominent as sheriff's stars. He has eagle tattoos, one on each forearm. In the woods, he carries as many as ten knives at once. "I would say I was born 200 years too late," he says. "I like the mountain-man days." Holding forth in the coffee shop, he speaks in long, blustery outbursts that leave you wondering when he'll inhale his next breath.
In the late eighties, after knocking out a few flawed prototypes made mostly out of hockey equipment, Hurtubise developed the $26,000 Mark V. With no grizzlies convenient, he decided to try out this version on black bears, which frequent garbage dumps around North Bay at night. Alas, black bears are far less aggressive than grizzlies: Goad and charge them as he might, Hurtubise couldn't get them to swipe at him, let alone clamp him in their jaws. The bears mostly did the sensible thing: They fled.
Undaunted, Hurtubise started on the newest suit, the Mark VI, in 1990. Bit by bit, pieces came together: fireproof rubber from Minnesota, chain mail from France, inflatable cushioning, a motorcycle helmet adapted to fit inside a titanium-alloy head unit. He also strapped on a camera — his "black box" — and an arm-mounted can of bear repellent. What Hurtubise gained in strength with the Mark VI, however, he lost in mobility. In full Ursus regalia, he walks with a starched, halting gait: the Tin Man after a good thrashing by the flying monkeys. Field tests were further complicated by Hurtubise's chronic claustrophobia, which made it tough to climb into a suit he can't escape from without the help of three men.
In the summer of 1995, the time came for the Mark VI's debut in grizzly country. With a film crew in tow, Hurtubise set out for Alberta with his "team" of affable friends, relatives, and rifle-toting acquaintances who stood by with rubber bullets and flares, just in case. But Hurtubise, besuited, faltered on the uneven terrain of the Rockies, crashing to the ground like an overturned refrigerator. Which was just as well, since not a single Yogi seemed interested in discovering whether the strange giant was edible. A few grizzlies ambled by, but never while Hurtubise was close enough to the suit to get dressed for a confrontation. He and his entourage packed up and headed home.
He's working on the mobility problem, Hurtubise will tell you, and on other refinements — but unfortunately, he ran out of money in February. These days, the Mark VI sits where the bankruptcy trustees have locked it up, in an otherwise empty room that smells of carpet chemicals. This fall, they'll auction it off to help pay its inventor's $36,000 in debts.
"It's not that the project's done," Hurtubise explains. "It's just on hold." In fact, yet another suit is on the drawing board, almost. "The blueprint's right here," he says, finger to a temple. "Mike Tyson's punching power is 540 pounds per square inch. Bang! I'll take 15 times Tyson's punching power in the Mark VII."
Suitless and insolvent, spurned by two different species of bear, Hurtubise remains surprisingly cheerful. For one thing, he's developed a secret system that he predicts will revolutionize professional hockey. And he fully expects a corporate backer, probably Japanese, to front him the $500,000 he needs for the Mark VII, the ultimate Ursus suit.
"Total top of the line," Hurtubise says. "I gotta go to NASA for the materials. This suit will have 90 percent flexibility. I can sit down and have a cup of coffee with it on." The lucky backer, meanwhile, gets to keep the technology, for encounters with bears or what-have-you. "Japan," he says, "has the foresight to say, 'Give this man a half a million dollars, let him build the Mark VII. All we want from it is the blueprints.' And then they'll put $50 million into it and they'll have a suit that will revolutionize fire control. Or riot control: While they're jumping on top of you, you're eating your sandwich inside. The only way you're going to kill the Mark VII is a rogue elephant with fangs. They'll make a billion off it in ten years."
The math seems to stop Hurtubise in his tracks. For a vulnerable moment, he ponders one of his tatooed eagles. "Look, I ain't no superhuman guy," he says. "I cry at a sad movie just like everybody else does, man."
Stephen Smith lives in Toronto. This is his first article for Outside.
Photographs by Edward Gajdel